Let’s take a look at Fritz Leiber’s first novel, Conjure Wife. In fact, it’s a near perfect example. The book has been reprinted around a dozen times by roughly as many publishers over the last 70 years, and each time the cover art and marketing copy tell you as much about society as they do about the book. More, even.
First, it helps to know a little about the novel. Conjure Wife was written in 1943; it’s a supernatural horror novel that imagines that witchcraft is an ancient secret shared by most women. Our protagonist Norman Saylor, a professor at a small town college, accidentally discovers that his wife Tansy is a witch. When he convinces her to abandon the mysterious art, the couple rapidly find their luck changing for the worse. Turns out that Tansy’s various charms were the only thing protecting them from an intricate web of curses and counter-spells cast by the women around them.
I always thought that was a fascinating premise. If it seems familiar, it’s because the story has filtered into public consciousness since 1943 — it’s been filmed at least three times: the Lon Chaney, Jr. feature Weird Woman (1944), the Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson collaboration Burn, Witch, Burn! (1962), and Lana Turner’s final film, Witches’ Brew (1980). Of course, the concept of a community of witches and warlocks living secretly among us has gradually become a popular fantasy trope — used in Jimmy Stewart’s 1958 fantasy Bell, Book and Candle, just for example, as well as the 1964 to 1972 TV series Bewitched, and even the Harry Potter novels.
Conjure Wife touches on some powerful themes: the power imbalance between the sexes, the suspicion and raw fear with which men view female sexuality, and the willful ignorance men are capable of when confronted with the community of women — especially when it comes to anything that looks like shared wisdom and knowledge. Every generation has viewed this book very differently and how publishers packaged it for the American public offers us fascinating raw insight into the way this country has changed over the last 70 years.
Let’s start with the novel’s first appearance, in the April 1943 issue of John W. Campbell’s famous pulp magazine Unknown Worlds.
I know; pics or it didn’t happen. Here’s the cover:
And here’s the blurb, printed right on the cover of the magazine, for those whose eyes aren’t quite stellar enough to make it out:
All women carry handbags as big as young suitcases, full of bits of this — oddments of that. Powder and rouge and lipstick, recipes and formulas. But — maybe those formulas aren’t all cake and cookies recipes. Maybe not all those powders are cosmetics. A bit of magic, a little witchcraft, mixed in– graveyard dirt and perfume, formulas for Dottie’s Cake and How To Steal a Soul —
This is fascinating. What’s the most mysterious and inexplicable thing about women in 1943? What do they keep in their handbags? What can all those unguessable ointments and powders be for?
Witchcraft. It’s the only thing that makes sense.
And now we fast-forward a decade, emerging from the fog of World War II, to America in the early 1950s. See if you can notice any difference in the way the story is being marketed in the 1953 Lion paperback, with a sultry cover by Robert Maguire:
Yes, the book is now being packaged as a gothic romance, with a wind-blasted heath in the foreground and a dark tower in the distance. That’s different.
But there’s more to it than that. Let’s focus on that cover text:
Potions in the House…
Evil in the Air…
And a Witch in his Bed
Suddenly the story is about sex. And evil. The two are intimately connected, in fact.
This book isn’t about trying to figure out what women have in their purse. It’s about what dark mysteries lurk in a woman’s bed. Our everyman hero Norman Saylor is all unknowingly sleeping with an agent of evil.
Let’s take a break for a moment to look at the 1962 Berkley Medallion paperback, a tie-in to the release of Burn, Witch, Burn! that same year.
Nothing really wrong with this cover, except it’s selling the movie, not the book, so it’s not all that germane to our discussion. Still, it’s here for the sake of completeness. And because I don’t own a copy of this edition, and I want one.
Much more interesting, I think, is the 1968 paperback from Award Books, which continues the evolution of the marketing of Conjure Wife with a beautiful and sensual cover by Jeff Jones — perhaps my favorite cover of the lot.
It’s fifteen years after Lion edition, and we’re still clearly in the province of gothic romance. There’s even a castle in the background. Just for the record, there is no castle in this book. It’s set in New England. Tansy Saylor is wearing an entire king-size sheet set, and she still manages to look almost naked.
But I’m more interested in the cover text. Once more, there’s been a subtle but crucial shift in the marketing copy. Again, see if you can notice it.
Dark Shadows of Evil Trapped
Her in a Web of Witchcraft —
A Modern Classic of Terror and Suspense
Suddenly we’re talking about Tansy instead of Norman. According to this cover, Conjure Wife isn’t about a man who discovers a witch in his bed. It’s about a heroine struggling against an evil heritage. Plus: sex.
The description on the first page falls a little more in line with what we know about the book.
Maybe All Women Were Witches…
Half of the human race still actively practicing sorcery? Thee witch women using magic — as had his wife — to advance their husbands’ careers and their own? Making use of their husbands’ special knowledge to give magic a modern twist. Competing with each other. Testing the powers of their charms and spells. Destroying each other by invoking ancient evils…
And he had rendered his wife helpless against them by forcing her to stop!
The back cover is fascinating as well, as it reprints a quote from Damon Knight’s rave review of the book, focusing on the “sickly growth, uncultivated, unsuspected,” of modern witchcraft (see the whole thing here.)
The name Tansy, by the way — as pointed out by my inscrutable, rich-with-hidden-knowledge wife — is also the name of an herb used by women in the Middle Ages to improve fertility and prevent miscarriages. Make of that what you will; Alice wouldn’t give up any more secret insight.
And now we leap ahead another decade, to the 1977 Ace reprint. Gone are all the trappings of the gothic romance. Conjure Wife is abruptly a very different thing altogether: a horror novel.
Once again, Tansy is the villain. The hero is Norman Saylor, and what he’s up against is nothing less than a pervasive and ancient cabal of evil women, passing their secret knowledge down through the generations. Here’s the back cover text:
Such an enchanting wife…
The faculty members of solid old Hampnell College — male — think that they are well in control of their own fates. Their wives know better. The entire structure of Hempnell rests on the ancient and potent magicks that all women know, and all men deny.
Tansy Saylor has done well by her Norman — so far. But now he has discovered her occult machinations, and demanded that she give up such childish nonsense. How is he to know that he has opened the door to a power so ancient, so malevolent, that all of Tansy’s might had been required to bind it — and all the might in the world may not be enough to bar the door again.
“Easily the most frightening (and necessarily) the most thoroughly convincing of all modern horror stories… Leiber has never written anything better.” — Damon Knight
While we’re finally getting closer to a true representation of the book — horror, not gothic romance — I’m still a little surprised that the 1977 version isn’t more sympathetic to Tansy.
The evil-Tansy approach is even more apparent in the 1984 reprint, also from Ace:
I don’t particularly like this cover, but I do think it’s the purest distillation yet of one of the questions at the heart of this book: what is the nature of the sexual power of women? Where does it originate from?
From the devil. Duh.
I am amazed how this book (or, much more accurately, the packaging of this book) has consistently — for generations — sent the message to heterosexual men that they aren’t to blame for their sexual desires. Women — all women — possess secret and evil gifts for the manipulation of men.
Men, your desire springs from an unholy source. Your nature remains pure, and the vessel of sin (in case you didn’t get any of the many previous memos) is women. Just FYI.
All this to help sell a paperback.
Finally, we come to the modern trade paperback edition, published by Tor/Orb in September, 2009 with a cover by Chris McGrath.
Two decades of female-positive urban fantasy cover images have made another evolution possible in the packaging of Conjure Wife. Here we find Tansy Saylor portrayed, not as the hapless wife needing guidance of 1953, or the innocent ingenue in the grip of the forces of evil from 1968, or the evil villainness of 1977. Instead, she is assured and powerful, confident in her sexual power and exploring the other sources of power at her disposal.
Here’s the back cover copy, which I think suits this edition nicely:
Professor Norman Saylor considered magic nothing more than superstition. Then he learned that his own wife was a practicing sorceress. But he still refuses to accept the truth… that in the secret occult warfare that governs our lives, magic is a matter of life and death. And that unbeknownst to men, every woman knows it.
Filmed twice, as Weird Woman (1944) and Burn Witch Burn (1961), this tale of secret witchcraft on a modern college campus is as readable today as the day it was written.
I’m sure the interpretation of Conjure Wife has not stopped evolving, and I’m curious to see how it will be marketed in another 20 or 40 years. Perhaps as a comedy featuring a hapless husband, like Bewitched? A young adult thriller?
A new film version was announced way back in 2008, to be directed by Billy Ray. I have no idea if it’s still in development or not. It might be fun to compare the movie versions, too. But I collect paperbacks, not movies. Maybe Ryan Harvey or Goth Chick will do it.
Want a copy of Conjure Wife? You’ve got many editions to choose from. Most are available cheaply online in one outlet or another. If you want a new copy, I recommend the handsome Orb trade paperback, which I bought remaindered for $6 from Amazon. Copies are still available if you act quickly.
Goodreads has a more comprehensive survey of about a dozen different editions of the novel here.
If you’re interested in reading more about Unknown magazine and the great fiction it published during its brief life, we discussed it in some length in December.